Of Autumn Leaves, Catholicism(s), and Changes

Autumn Treesby Pearl Maria Barros

Lately, I’ve been struck by the dazzling colors of autumn – bursts of orange, yellow, and red coming out of the trees that shelter me as I walk to school each day. It’s like being surrounded by a variety of burning bushes; each one beckoning me to take off my shoes for the ground on which I stand is holy. Sometimes I heed their call and though I do not take off my shoes I stop and stare at them with wonder and amazement.

What amazes me most about the beauty of autumn leaves is how they add color and vibrancy to something that most people find frightening: change. I don’t know about you but change tends to freak me out. I like order, lists, plans, but change just never seems to fit neatly enough between the lines of my ruled schedule book. Change can be unsettling. And yet without it we die.

I’ve been pondering this paradoxical nature of change for the last few weeks not only because the weather has grown slightly cooler and the daylight slightly dimmer, but also because I’ve been wondering about the ways in which I have changed over the years. It started, I admit, after a late night visit on Facebook during which I viewed the profiles of some old friends and found myself hurt by the interpretations of Catholicism listed on their sites. Most are members of the Benedict XVI fan club, quote Church Fathers when “discussing” women’s reproductive rights, and have already started having children due to the effects of natural family planning. I do not resent them for holding these beliefs. They are free to see the Magisterium as a source of divine revelation. I simply marvel at the fact that I once held similar beliefs, debated vehemently against women’s ordination with them, was once considered by them to be a faithful apologist. What happened? For them, I probably fell face first into the “culture of relativism” that is often denounced by the current pontiff. “She used to be Catholic,” they might say to each other – they are saying, “She used to be one of us.” But I am “one of you” I want to say. I am Catholic. Indeed, what hurt me most was a gut feeling I have that these friends might simply think that I have changed my religious beliefs to accommodate some sexy lifestyle – that I’ve preferred to create a five lane highway for myself instead of attempting to go through the narrow way. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth for the process of growing into an adult faith has been long and arduous and full of change. It scares the shit out of me. I have no catechism with which to cover myself, no priest to tell me that as long as I do X and Y I will get Z. But what I do have is a profound desire to be a person of wholeness and holiness; I desire to be a woman of God. And sometimes this involves having to critique my beloved Church, having to recognize the ways in which it might actually get in the way of reaching holiness – not only my own but also that of others. It means having to sit and struggle with questions about myself, about God, about life and to trust like Rilke that I will eventually “live my way into the answers.” I only hope that as I live through these changes I will find that they have added color and richness to my life just as the autumn leaves add beauty and grace to a tree in the midst of dying. A tree that knows it will come to life again.

Pearl Maria Barros is a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.

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